SAN FRANCISCO – Praise has been heaped on Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera this week, and deservedly so. The local boy done good was an excellent NFL linebacker and a top-flight coach who worked through the ranks before reaching his current post.
The Seaside native now stands on the cusp of a Super Bowl championship, which can be earned Sunday with a victory over the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium. He’s also become a folk hero among Hispanic fans, as one of far-too-few Latino coaches to reach great heights.
“Don’t forget about Tom Flores,” Rivera said this week. “He’s a pioneer.”
Flores is a Raiders legend, too often ignored outside the team’s rabid fan base. He was the first Latino quarterback to start on a pro football team, a spot earned with the Raiders in 1960. He was the first minority head coach to win a Super Bowl. Then he won another, both with the Raiders.
He also won Super Bowl XI as John Madden’s offensive coordinator. Flores was 83-53 in nine years as Raiders head coach and had an 8-3 postseason record in that span. That included victories in Super Bowls XV and XVII.
Young Ron Rivera grew up following Flores and the Raiders, watching a Latino star defined more by play and production than race. Rivera has done the same. Flores stumbled some in three years as Seattle Seahawks head coach, but certainly deserves more Hall of Fame consideration than he has received.
“When you talk about me and my Hispanic heritage, it was Tom Flores and (Raiders quarterback) Jim Plunkett, guys like that, and (NFL quarterback) Roman Gabriel,” Rivera said. “Those were guys I could look up to and really aspire to be like them.”
Flores followed Rivera’s career closely, from the time he played at Cal-Berkeley. Their paths first crossed last summer in Lake Tahoe, a meeting that meant a lot to Rivera. Now he’ll try to become the second Latino head coach to win a Super Bowl. Rivera would take great pride following in Flores’ footsteps.
“I would love to get that opportunity,” Rivera said. “Tom Flores is somebody I’ve really admired and have grown to really appreciate. I’ve gotten to know him and visited with Coach Flores. It was a really neat experience.”
Rivera’s presence during Super Bowl week has put a spotlight on Flores, someone who doesn’t get enough consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He certainly has the resume, even with a lackluster turn as Seattle Seahawks head coach.
Flores has never been a finalist for the Hall of Fame. Count Rivera among those who think that’s a crime, that Flores belongs in the HOF.
“Oh yeah,” Rivera said. “If you coach this game and have the level of success he had, you should have that opportunity. He really should.”